Guest Review: The High House

the high house

Today it is my pleasure to welcome a guest reviewer to my blog. Peter Wild is the editor and founder of Bookmunch, a book blog I regularly contribute to. He kindly agreed to review The High House for me. I was interested in his take on a book I consider a must read.

The High House by Jessie Greengrass

The world as we know it is going to hell in a handcart (although if the latest opinion polls that demonstrate only 4 in 10 people think the most corrupt Government the UK has ever had is in fact the most corrupt Government the UK has ever had, it’s highly likely that only 4 in 10 people think the world is going to hell in a handcart too). Whether you dabble with the kinds of nonfiction we see from Naomi Klein (On Fire) or David Wallace-Wells (Uninhabitable Earth), watch documentaries a la I Am Greta or This Changes Everything, dip your toe into the waters of dystopian fiction (I Am Monster, Gold Fame Citrus, The Road, Things We Didn’t See Coming) or simply, you know, watch the news – you’ll likely have an idea what I’m talking about. Jessie Greengrass (of An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It and Sight) has contributed to this burgeoning fictional inlet with her latest, The High House.

What we have here is an arresting novel described by Max Porter as being “about the great crisis of our time” but played out in “an unconventional domestic drama performed on an intimate stage.” There are three narrators, Caro and Pauly (brother and sister) and Sally (provisionally a sort of guardian figure for the two children, along with her Grandy, who is the resident handy man and fixer of all things in a small village). Caro and Pauly’s mother Francesca is herself a sort of Naomi Klein figure, given to travelling here, there and everywhere, a Cassandra for the coming doom – but in the midst of her clarion calls she and her husband also work hard to create a sanctuary for her children in a house formerly owned by her uncle. The eponymous high house. Sally and her Grandy are drafted in to help make the place habitable for as far into the future as is humanly possible.

Just as Klein writes about her own children in her nonfiction, so we are told Francesca react to criticisms of her own parenthood with “a kind of furious defiance… a kind of pact with the world that, having increased her stake in it, she should try and protect what she had found to love.” And yet still there are “moments when the outside world intruded” in a way that seemed “extraordinarily violent”:

“…photographs of people knee-deep in mud, of children lying in rows on mattresses, their eyes huge in their skulls…”

The heart of the book, really, is an attempt to foster “a small survival”, “a way to live which was not notable, which did not aspire but did not, either, take more than it put back, nor push off the cost of enterprise elsewhere, outsourcing, as we often did, our suffering.”

The novel darts back from an ostensible ‘now’, in which Caro, Sally and Pauly are older and have weather travails together, to take us through what led up to the establishment of their home against a backdrop of climatic unrest (“a set of circumstances which could have been prevented, once, but now had gone beyond repair”).

The High House certainly contributes to the sense that any right thinking person has, that we are, in various ways, in a parlous state, that we rely on often corrupt decision makers too busy stuffing their pockets (or decorating their official residences) to actually make a difference in a way that the future of the world might go on to hold them in high esteem for, making the rest of us somewhat helpless in the face of the ask.

Towards the close of the novel, Sally refers to the fact that “more and more of that which we have salvaged is exhausted, or lost, or starts to rot” and Pauly himself wonders what will happen when and if he is the only person left, and this reader wished Greengrass had done more with this. If we had been told the story of what led to the establishment of the High House and had a chance to view the other end, the end of their end, it’s possible The High House would have been exceptional indeed. As it is, it’s a good novel seeking to grapple with (as Max Porter says) the biggest question of our time, and it makes a good fist of things. There is just the slight, niggling feeling at the back of my mind that if the book were more equally weighted between the then and the now – and if the now had more to say than simply “all things tend towards their ruin” – it would be a bigger and bolder read. (One example of a bigger and bolder book would be Jim Crace’s Harvest, which imagines a rural setting far in the future, long after whatever tremors and aftershocks we are to experience as a race have come to an end.)

Peter Wild

Book Review: The High House

the high house

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“It is not enough to have an ark, if you do not also have the skills to sail it”

This is the third book by Jessie Greengrass that I have read. All have been enjoyed. Her writing just keeps getting better.

The High House is set in the near future. It explores the impact of climate change, particularly rising sea levels. More than that though, it revolves around a small cast of characters skilfully rendered. Few words are wasted on what they look like. What matters is how they feel and react to each other, and how events they must live through shape them.

The story is told from three points of view with chapters headed by their names: Sally, Caro, Pauly. The timeline is non-linear with much of the narrative filling in gaps. Structured in short sections, pace is pitched perfectly to maintain interest and momentum. There is an underlying tension in knowing what is to come.

Caro is raised in London by her father, an academic. When he marries Francesca, a scientist, they spend holidays at the High House. This is a large coastal property left to Francesca by an uncle. Visits cease after baby Pauly is born. Caro, now a teenager, helps care for the child. A respected expert in the field, Francesca is becoming more concerned about the impending climate disaster she can see coming – that the world appears wilfully blind to. She spends increasing amounts of time away from home.

Sally is raised in the village below the High House by her grandfather, Grandy. He has lived there all his life, watching it change from a farming and fishing community to a place filled with holiday homes. Grandy is employed as caretaker by the absent owners. When Francesca decides to make the High House an ultimate refuge for her family, he becomes involved.

Caro is not made party to Francesca’s plans. She feels abandoned, believing her stepmother has chosen work over her son. At the same time she enjoys the role she plays in Pauly’s upbringing. Francesca’s wider concerns bring tension to the home that affects them all.

News reports tell of increasingly unpredictable weather events in other places – the refugees created when floods wreak havoc. Viewer shock is short lived when events feel distant, while they remain okay.

“drone footage of torn buildings and flooded streets which showed the water lying still and calm and deep across places people had thought they owned.”

Sally is unimpressed by Francesca, resenting the attention Grandy pays her as she talks of what is to come. Grandy understands the power of the weather having experienced the lasting impact on his and neighbouring villages of the last great flood.

“-This isn’t going to be like that,
Francesca said.
-There won’t be memorials in church halls. No one is going to make up songs. There will be nothing left.
-Nothing?
I asked, and I felt gleeful, as though I had found the point at last, and now could press it home.
-Or only nothing of yours? People have nothing already. People are dying already. How can a threat to you be an apocalypse when the rest of the world is drowning and it’s only a fucking preamble?”

In London, residents and visitors enjoy the lengthening seasons of warmth and sunshine. Caro takes Pauly to their local park to play, aware of changes to plants and wildlife but not paying attention. There are day to day concerns to deal with whatever is happening beyond.

“We had the habit of luck and power, and couldn’t understand that they were not our right. We saw that things were bad, elsewhere, but surely something would turn up, because didn’t it always for us?”

From the first few pages the reader knows who ends up at the High House and that Francesca’s efforts enable their survival. The story is of what happened and how they got there. The writing is incisive but also empathetic. The denouement is quietly devastating.

There are elements of domestic drama – jealousies, irritation, resentment, love – that draw the reader in, yet what this story offers is so much more. It is painfully easy to see the reflections of our current situation. When resources grow scarce, what is anyone willing to share and with whom?

Any Cop?: A tale so well crafted it may be enjoyed despite the warnings therein. Book reviewers are sometimes mocked for employing certain overused phrases. In this case I have no qualms in saying, The High House is a must read.

Jackie Law